Beatriz at Dinner
Yet again I sit here faced with the task of reviewing a Hollywood "indie" film that, unlike those bloated comic-book franchises or *whisper* genre films *gasp*, purports to be about people, drama and daring and/or interesting subject matter.
In a movie industry that seems to be utterly adrift, where billion dollar franchises beget more billion dollar franchises, Hollywood uses these so-called "micro-budgeted" indies (in the 5-25 million dollar range) to show that this unwieldy, cash stuffed behemoth still has artistic integrity and interest in "stories".
In the last few weeks I have reviewed The Dinner, The Wall and The Hero. All movies with fine casts, a decent intention, cinematographers that, for the most part, know what they're doing and the word 'The' in the title but I can't say any of them were memorable, any of them I will be watching again or any of them I really liked. I appreciated them all for something but didn't really invest in, like or overly enjoy any of them.
So here comes Beatriz at Dinner. Marketed as if the story were: Hard working, salt of the earth Mexican American woman gives Donald Trump-like Doug Strutt (John Lithgow) a piece of her mind over a swanky dinner among the Los Angeles elite.
A film just brimming with current day "issues" - the wealth gap, immigration, the environment etc. You can see those "Hollywood elite liberals" (as they are called by confused, old, white men) patting themselves on the back that they roasted the flabby, orange, hate filled boar of Trump and the sweaty, slick haired Hollywood money men grinning like Cheshire cats and rubbing their hands together as liberals line up to pay money to see the film. It's a win/win all over.
Once you've actually paid your money, however, the film is not quite that simple. Rather than being, at this point, an utterly redundant, further skewering of Trump it is actually about... well I'm not sure what it's about... but what happens is that a poor, busy, Mexican American woman with no family to speak of, who practices new-age medicine on cancer patients, gives massages and keeps goats, winds up at the dinner of some rich clients - whom she befriended while working with their cancer suffering daughter - and face to face with a Donald Trump type who reminds her of other capitalists who destroyed her home town in Mexico.
Through an awkward series of exchanges we find out that Beatriz worries and cares about everything probably a little too much, doesn't really know when to stop talking and sees that maybe, to cure the world, it might not be about dealing with the symptoms but the cause, in this case Lithgow's Doug Strutt. She's definitely not a happy person either.
Watching this I definitely sympathised with her and probably would side politically with her but, overall, I found her a pretty frustrating, one dimensional character.
I was probably meant to, that was probably the point. Being a white male, I was probably meant to wrestle with the fact I don't really buy into new-age medicine, I don't think people with neighbours should be keeping loud goats and I do think that when at a dinner party, people should be aware of others, when voicing opinions, and somewhat polite, if possible.
I also think films should have a beginning, middle and end, with characters I can root for and at least one moment where a monster eats someone's head or a helicopter explodes... What do I know?!
Lithgow, on the other hand, as Doug Strutt is just as monstrous, arrogant and all round white and male as you can imagine. His building company doesn't care about endangered species, he hunts and kills rhino in Africa, he's obscenely wealthy, racist, sexist, rude and everyone around him, including some of this dinner crowd, are image conscious, sycophantic, weaselly turds.
The twist though, I guess, is that he's happy, calm and confident.
He's not stupid either, he realises who he is and what he does but he just sees the whole world as his playground and doesn't particularly care who he hurts in the process. He finds it odd that others would cause themselves so much heart ache and misery caring for the things about the world he'd rather not confront.
So, I guess, my first issue with Beatriz at Dinner is despite both actors' incredible performances - and Salma Hayek and John Lithgow are wonderful in this - I don't really buy either character. I don't imagine CEOs of multi-billionaire companies like Trump or Murdoch are ever really calm, I think they're knotted up balls of insecurity, rage, arrogance, ignorance and tension and I guess, when it comes to Beatriz, I find her lack of any humour and relentless sadness a little frustrating. Even before the dinner, she is very serious all the time and If she's passionate about her holistic practices, surely she must have some happiness and pride in them too? Also, and I know it's to ramp up tension and make you feel awkward, but I don't know anyone who'd be so rude around a dinner table.
Maybe, again, this is a point I am missing. As I look around at the political discourse on social media the right seem to be a bunch of "ya go off and cry you snowflake!" bullying, awful, ignorant, silly, devil may care types and the left seem to be an ultra sensitive, very serious, well meaning but ultimately self-centered bunch who care way more about kale and linen scarfs for men than they should.
That only leaves Connie Britton's character Cathy as someone you can remotely understand. She's well meaning, positive, kind to Beatriz and I never felt that she's 100% supportive of her dinner guests' ideas. Yes she's vain, indulges in idiotic gossip with her girlfriends and ultimately would rather ignore the problems of the world than face them but we can all say that about ourselves at one time or another, can't we?
Maybe, again, all this searching for some recognisable humanity among this group isn't the point either. The film seems to flirt between being about the tragedy of a dead goat as a metaphor for something (I clearly missed the point of that), an observation on an awkward dinner between some, very well played but fairly obvious and thin characters, a momentary examination about whether the end justifies the means when it comes to stamping out the cause of an issue and there's something in there too about the struggle of the downtrodden against the powerful and wealthy few that will ultimately consume us all.
I am making it sound so much more weighty and profound than it actually is.
Ultimately, in the end, the character of Beatriz, the film itself and the audience just, sort of, give up and you walk out of the movie with a very sort of 'huh?' feeling. It's not unpleasant but hardly satisfying either.
It turns out that, yet again, it's a movie with a fine cast - an excellent one in fact - with decent intentions and a director and cinematographer that, for the most part, know what they're doing but I can't say it is all that memorable, that I will watch it again or that, I really liked it, exactly and I'm kind of getting sick of feeling that about movies.
I watched The Untouchables again the other day. It has a great cast, a great soundtrack, good one liners, a director who knows how to stage a set piece, human interest, action, violence, friendship, great costumes, a plot you could engage with and so on and so on and so on...
Whatever happened to movies like that?
BEATRIZ AT DINNER is in theaters June 9, 2017